The spring of 1995 was a crowded season in indie-rock history. Pavement dropped their polarizing third album, the willfully messy and frequently brilliant Wowee Zowee. Yo La Tengo continued their hit streak of low-key masterworks with Eletr-O-Pura. Illinois fuzz-rock quartet Hum hit hard with You’d Prefer An Astronaut, and Teenage Fanclub produced one of their finest jangle-pop efforts, Grand Prix. Wilco, Elastica, and Apples In Stereo put out well-regarded debuts. And Red House Painters hit a new high-water mark with Ocean Beach.
But even in an era when classic indie records seemed to come out every week, there was nothing quite like Alien Lanes, the eighth full-length LP by a band from Dayton, Ohio called Guided By Voices.
Released on April 4, 1995, Alien Lanes arrived with baked-in mythology. It had been supposedly recorded for just $10 in various concrete basements around Dayton by a group of blue-collar guys in their mid-30s. GBV (as they were known colloquially) had achieved indie fame a few years earlier after tastemakers in New York City “discovered” a gaggle of bizarre, blurry-sounding psych-pop albums the band released to zero fanfare in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In a pre-internet world, this music was authentically mysterious, more akin to found objects than typical rock ‘n’ roll product. Most fans had never seen them live or even knew what they looked like. But GBV also had a refreshing lack of pretension, marked by an uncomplicated worship of pop history that transcended the era’s usual obscure-for-obscurity’s-sake fetishism. GBV might have been quirky, but they could also rock with surprising directness.
Inspired by ’60s classic rock, ’70s art-punk and prog, and ’80s indie, they were led by Robert Pollard, a hard-drinking fourth-grade school teacher who wrote hundreds upon hundreds of eccentric and irresistibly catchy songs on nights and weekends. The guys in his band had similar everydude resumés – one guitarist made ends meet as an illustrator, and the other guitarist worked in a sandpaper factory. The drummer was employed by a mental health facility. The bass player was a college student who temporally exited the band upon Alien Lanes‘ release to become a lawyer. Together, these musicians (among Pollard’s other collaborators and drinking buddies in Dayton) would gather at Pollard’s behest and record on 4-track machines, never spending more than a handful of minutes on each song. Sometimes, they would improvise entirely new tunes on the spot. Many times, these tracks were no longer than a minute. And they did this while drinking 1,000 beers and smoking 10,000 cigarettes.
These methods would ultimately inform Alien Lanes, their first album released by the venerable indie label Matador, which granted it a much greater promotional push than any previous GBV record. Major music magazines praised them, and they even ended up national TV for the first time. This despite Alien Lanes being the most radical LP that GBV made up to that point — with 28 songs clocking in at just 41 minutes, it was more like a suite than a proper album, overloaded with countless moments of inventive serendipity. Not only did band members frequently trade instruments, they found ways to “play” everything from battered violins to trash can lids. They eschewed “professional” record-making techniques in favor of spontaneous strokes of genius, like when Pollard achieved a tremolo vocal effect by asking his brother to pound on his back as he sang. Or when he created a rhythm track by recording the sound of a friend snoring. Twenty-five years later, there’s still no album quite like it.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Alien Lanes — which Matador is commemorating with a special vinyl edition — we talked to the band members, record label executives, critics, and fans to get the story behind this remarkable classic.
Robert Pollard (singer/songwriter for Guided By Voices): I like Dayton. I’m sure some people who wanna knock it — or don’t understand what we do because we don’t have hits — like to say I never “made it” because I didn’t leave and go to someplace like NYC or LA. But I choose to stay here mainly because of my family and people I grew up with and met through sports and 14 years of teaching.
Mitch Mitchell (guitarist for Guided By Voices): I met Bob through sports, and I knew his brother Jim. We all went to school together. Bob, he worked at the school newspaper and he’d do record reviews. I’d go over to his house and I’d listen to music with him. I guess sports and music are the two things that brought us together.
Pollard: I started writing songs when I was very young, as far back as I can remember. I don’t know if you can call it “writing” songs. It’s more like making them up. I made up “Eggs Make Me Sick” when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. The first song I wrote was, “We Are From the Planet Mars.” I was just inspired to make up songs by what was going on around me: Space flight, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, school.
Mitchell: I was in a band with a couple of other guys and we were trying to find who we could get to sing. I thought, “Well, Bob, he might sing. He knows a lot about music. He probably knows all the songs and maybe he knew some words.”
Pollard: The gig was like three or four days away, so at first I said no. But they were very persistent, I guess, based on hearing me sing in the hallways at school, so I said yes. They gave me confidence. We didn’t have a name at first, but I very quickly came up with Anacrusis. It’s a musical term meaning to start a song on the upbeat. They thought it sounded very heavy metal, so we went with it.
Mitchell: We did UFO songs and we did Blue Oyster Cult, Cheap Trick, more of the popular songs, not real heavy songs. After a while we started putting in a couple of originals. We’d slip them in. “Here’s a cover from Foghat,” and we’d do one of our original songs so nobody would know.
Pollard: I went through various stages of trying to sound like other singers. I’m sure that’s pretty natural, but at some point I liked the way my voice sounded. Especially the slight British affectation. I was in my formative years during the British Invasion, so it seemed natural. At some point during early adulthood, I tried to take on a more American, rootsy style but that didn’t last long because it sounded hokey.
Mitchell: Bob and I were getting off the cover band-type thing and getting into more new wave and punk rock and some of the newer music that we were listening to. Of course the other guys, they weren’t having that. When I cut my hair, they kicked me out. And then Bob said, “Well, if you kick him out, I’m going to quit.” We just figured maybe it’s best we just strike out and do something different. We wanted to put off a little bit of an image. I know at one point in time when we all wore high school jackets while we all smoked cigarettes and drank Colt 45s. That was back when we were called The Needmores.
Pollard: It was our varsity “N” letter jackets. We all lettered in sports at Northridge High School so I decided to go with those jackets because they were already custom made.
Tobin Sprout (singer/songwriter/guitarist for Guided By Voices): I had a band called Fig. 4, and there was a club called the 1001 Club that was getting all these touring bands like Del Fuegos that we were opening up for. One night, we were playing and Bob, Jimmy, and Pete [Jamison, GBV’s former manager] came in. They were in front of the stage the whole night. They had these dusters on, these long jackets. After one of the sets, Pete came over and said Bob wanted to meet me. So I went over and talked to Bob for a little bit and we got to know each other and the next thing I know, we’re hanging out and playing.
Pollard: I told him I was really impressed, and we started up somewhat of a friendship.
Sprout: He didn’t really have Guided By Voices together yet, but eventually he came up with that title and it seemed that was the one that stuck. It had a charm to it. It just seemed right.
Mitchell: You could say the band was “guided by the voices” we were influenced by. I don’t know if it necessarily has a definition. I think it was just more that the words looked cool together.
Pollard: When Fig. 4 broke up, Toby joined Guided By Voices. He briefly went back to Fig. 4, but when things became serious, he came on board again and we started collaborating in a more serious sense.
Greg Demos (bassist for Guided By Voices): Bob and I became friends in 1987. He was finishing recording Sandbox at Steve Wilbur’s garage studio. I was looking to record with my band at the time called The New Creatures and we recorded at the same garage studio on Bob’s recommendation. Bob and Jimmy hung out with us while we recording and Bob sang some backing vocals on the record. When he was ready to record Same Place The Fly Got Smashed, he asked me if I would like to play on it. We recorded the full-band tracks for the album at Wilbur’s garage studio. I played bass and lead guitar on several tracks.
Sprout: I played on Forever Since Breakfast and Devil Between My Toes. I played on “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire” and a couple of other ones. Then I moved to Florida after that and when I came back, they were putting Propeller together, so I rejoined and was in it until Under The Bushes.
Mitchell: We worked hard to get any attention in Dayton. It was kind of frustrating when you played a gig and nobody would show up. After a while, we just said, “You know what? If we can’t play around here, we’ll make some records and maybe we’ll play somewhere else.” We just kept at it. We didn’t want to quit.
Nate Farley (Alien Lanes tour roadie, eventual GBV guitarist): At the time, a lot of music in Dayton had a little more of a hardcore sound, maybe with a metal edge to it. And GBV, especially Forever Since Breakfast, has an R.E.M. influence. From the people that I hung out with, and that whole second wave of punk rockers in Dayton, I think at the time it was not edgy enough or too songwriter-related.
Demos: During this period it was all recording and no live shows. I had also started law school around this time. At some point in the next year or so Bob was ready to record Propeller and asked me to play on the full band songs on the record.
Sprout: We recorded quite a bit in my basement. The garage was below the house, so you’d go into the garage and into the basement that way. It was just a concrete basement. I had a little section set up with the 4-track and then I had a set of drums, and various mics, guitar amps and stuff. A lot of the bass on the early stuff was played on guitar because I didn’t have a bass. So I tuned the guitar tone all the way down to bass. “Echos Myron” was all on the guitar, which is the end of it. I tried to play it on bass. It’s a lot harder on bass than it was on guitar, those runs.
When we were doing “Hot Freaks”, we were having a garage sale. Bob’s screaming “Hot Freaks!” and my wife and all these people at the garage sale were like, “What the hell? What’s that?”
Pollard: A lot of people that I knew — relatives, friends, acquaintances from work and recreational sports —thought I was insane. Like, “Where in the fuck does he get off thinking that he’s some kind of a rock musician?”
Sprout: I can remember we were practicing for Propeller and Bob, after the practice, goes, “Okay, this is it. This is my final album, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.” So the next morning, I get a call from him about 7:30, eight o’clock. He goes, “I got another song, I got to come over.” So he was there in 15 minutes and we went in the basement and we hooked the 4-track up. Bob sat down and showed me the guitar parts and then he played the drums and I set it up so we could do guitars and drums at the same time. So we recorded that and then he threw the vocal on and threw the lead guitar on. It was “Exit Flagger.” It came together in a matter of 20 minutes.
Propeller, Guided By Voices’ fifth album released in 1992, was the band’s first to gain attention outside of Dayton. One of the first people in New York City to hear it was a musician, PR agent, and man about town named Matt Sweeney.
Matt Sweeney (singer/guitarist for Chavez, hard-core GBV fan, future GBV member): I went to my weed dealer’s house, who was a serious record collector. I went over to buy some weed, and the music that he was playing was so fucking good, and also not like the kind of music that he usually played, because he was definitely over rock music. He was into free jazz and shit like that. Generally, the routine was that I would buy some weed from him, and then we’d hang out and listen to records. We called it the Monday night pot party. He lent me the record, and me and my friend just lost our minds. The record was Propeller.
They sounded like a legit ’60s band. And Mitch Mitchell is on the record? Mitch Mitchell was Jimi Hendrix’s drummer! All of it was so weird. The names didn’t seem like they were real. Tobin Sprout doesn’t seem like a real name.
Sweeney became a John The Baptist-type proselytizer for GBV in New York, playing their music for various musicians, label heads, and journalists as GBV put out another full-length, Vampire On Titus, on Cleveland-based indie Scat Records in early 1993.
Matt Diehl (music critic): The way I discovered GBV was pretty much how any New York rock critic did: Matt Sweeney sat me down and played me every single release of GBV he had. I believe he played me even old demos, basement live recordings, and the like. Everything.
Sweeney: I think I gave a tape to Kurt Cobain. I made tapes for fucking everybody.
Gerard Cosloy (Matador Records co-founder): I think it was either Matt Sweeney or Johan Kugelberg who kept playing the stuff in our office — Propeller and Vampire On Titus anyway. Both of which became fixtures on the stereo, definitely one of those “what the fuck is this?” moments.
Chris Lombardi (Matador co-founder): Those became records that were played all the time at work. They were genius. It was like these beautiful snapshots of a moment in somebody’s mind. They weren’t these rehearsed or overwritten songs that had beginnings, middles, and ends. They were just these raw, melodic emotions, these moments. It was like ear candy to us.
Cosloy: Without the benefit of having seen or met the band — keep in mind we’d not seen any photos or videos or been given a press kit or whatever — there was some immediate mystique. What was the deal here? Was this band old or young? What did they look like?
In the summer of 1993, Guided By Voices played their first NYC show at the historic punk venue CBGB’s.
Lombardi: Maybe Matt Sweeney had reached out to them. I think he had written to Bob, and he encouraged those guys to come to New York and play a show.
Sweeney: I guess I was really the first person, outside of the Scat Records dude from Cleveland [Robert Griffin], to reach out.
Pollard: It was terrifying. We hadn’t performed live in six years. And also knowing who was in the crowd: Sonic Youth, Pavement, Matador. All people who I am now very comfortable around. But at the time I wanted to crawl underground with the mole people rather than face those people at that gig.
Lombardi: We all went to that gig at CBGB’s and it blew our minds. It was incredible.
Sweeney: I think everybody was expecting a much younger, self-aware post-rock vibe, because that was what was going on at the time.
Cosloy: I don’t think we wanted to work with them until we saw them play. As terrific as the records were, the live shows were another animal entirely. For all of the low-fidelity charms of the early Guided By Voices records — without question, the songs are excellent, the recordings super inventive — we were not prepared for their being such a powerhouse live band or Bob being such a compelling front person.
Sweeney: People didn’t even know what to make of them. It was really funny. I loved it. I was so excited. It was really fun, because people just thought that they were going to be like cool or something. They weren’t expecting it to be so completely great and also dead-ass rocking and high-kicking and all that shit.
Lombardi: I don’t think some of those guys had been to New York City ever before. To be there and all of a sudden have whatever the New York tastemakers were all crowded around them, in this legendary club, and going bananas for your music, it must’ve been so intoxicating. Besides the fact that they were already intoxicated.
The following summer, in 1994, GBV released one of their most famous albums, Bee Thousand, which includes popular fan favorites like “I Am A Scientist,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” and “Echoes Myron.” It finished at No. 8 in the Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, ahead of albums by Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Soundgarden, Green Day, and the Beastie Boys. But before Bee Thousand dropped, Pollard was already pondering the followup — a masterwork he initially called Scalping The Guru, before changing the title to Alien Lanes.
Pollard: We were pleasantly surprised with the success of Bee Thousand. It’s funny, because Robert Griffin gave us the heads up that “this was gonna be the one.” We were very excited about where we were going with Alien Lanes, especially with our newly found critical success and the fact that we weren’t finished exploring what we could do creatively with songs on the 4-track. It was a mad flourish of output.
Sprout: Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are a blur. I mean, there’s the one album and then all of a sudden, Alien Lanes is ready to go.
Pollard: Bee Thousand was an accumulation of ideas leading up for years before we put it together. It’s almost a compilation. All the songs for Alien Lanes were recorded specifically for Alien Lanes. We had developed a great deal of confidence. We had a silly swagger, as the song titles themselves can attest.
Mitchell: I’m even trying to think of where we recorded. I don’t remember where we recorded that particular thing.
Demos: We recorded some at Toby’s, some at Bob’s and some at Kevin’s. [Kevin Fennell was GBV’s drummer at this time.] Lots of beer, lots of cigarettes, lots of fun.
Sprout: I’ve read about Stevie Wonder. He used to work like that. When he would record, he’d have all his buddies in the studio. I figure, yeah, if you add that up, I think you can hear the energy level.
Pollard: I wanted an audience, but I didn’t want a misstep by making what might have appeared to the indie-rock cognoscenti as a sellout move by going immediately out of our element. That’s why we went bombastic with Alien Lanes. You want lo-fi? You want short songs? Otherworldly? Local? Here you go.
Sprout: We recorded on a Tascam 4-track, just a really simple one. Most of Bee Thousand was recorded on that. I did most of the engineering with it. Then, about the time of Alien Lanes, we were using Greg’s. I don’t know if it was his or he borrowed it, but he had an 8-track cassette deck that we used on a lot.
Mitchell: We always had time for goofing around but for the most part, once we got in the studio we were pretty intent on doing what we were there for.
Sprout: A lot of times there was a party going on while we were recording and sometimes there’s people tripping over the mics and knocking over shit. But it all seemed to work. We would get to the point where, “Okay, we got to do vocals now.” And everybody would get quiet and Bob would do the vocals and then the party would start back up. Again, if it got stupid, you dealt with it.
Demos: Some songs were made up on the spot first take. There was no demo tape from Bob, so full-band songs were learned at the session quickly and then recorded. The bass parts that I would end up playing live for these songs were made up after the recording was done.
Sprout: I’d write and record songs as a demo and then Bob would say, “Say, this is good enough. I mean, why do we need to re-record it? I couldn’t do it much better.” So it stayed that way.
Pollard: At the time I wasn’t concerned at all with how a recorded song translated to a live setting. I may be wrong though. I could be contradicting myself with how I felt or what I said at the time. It was long ago. We were just banging songs out in five or ten minutes.
Sprout: We were recording daily. We’d get together and do a session and then pretty much everything was handed over to Bob and Bob would divvy it up on the EPs, albums, and singles or whatever was coming out. A lot of little labels were asking us to do singles and there was just so much material at the time. He would visualize what the albums looked like, and we’d go from there.
Pollard: I thought Alien Lanes was the name of a bowling alley in a town called Wapokeneta, 50 miles north of Dayton. But I went up later and found out it was called Astro Lanes. It’s the birthplace of Neil Armstrong and the bowling alley is right across from the aerospace museum. You can see them both off of I-75. I liked the imagery of a spherical object, like the moon or Earth knocking down pins, and that we were knocking down hit after hit with Alien Lanes.
Rich Turiel (GBV super fan, future web master and tour manager): There’s still, to this day, a lot of mystery surrounding the goings-on in Tobin’s basement, and Bob’s basement, and recording these things. Like, “Where are these from? Are they from the same sessions or where do these come from?”
Pollard: We were still being extremely careful with our image as far as maintaining an air of mystique. Although, really, I’m still doing that.
Part of the mystery of Guided By Voices albums was figuring out who played what on which tracks. That mystery persists for Alien Lanes, even for the musicians themselves. One person who was missing from the photo on the album’s back cover was Greg Demos. In his place was new bassist Jim Greer, a rock journalist who became friendly with GBV after profiling them for Spin magazine. He later wrote a biography about the band.
Spout: It’s kind of a sore spot for him that he’s not on the back cover.
Demos: By the time the record went to pressing I was no longer playing so the band photo did not have me in it. It would have been nice to be on it but that’s the way it worked out.
Pollard: I just thought it was a cool photo of us. You know, we’re down in the basement thinking “what the fuck are we gonna do?” I also thought it was a good time, having signed with Matador, for people to see what we looked like. You can call it the classic lineup if you want. It’s not the original lineup. It’s three-fifths minus 1 of the original lineup.
Sprout: Either Greg played bass or I did, and then the photo on the back is pretty much the touring band. That’s why Greer’s in there, but it was mostly Greg that played on all these songs.
Mitchell: I’m not on all the records. It wasn’t like I was out of the band. It just meant that on that particular record, maybe I wasn’t on it or somebody else wasn’t on it. There was a lot of creative energy going on, and I think sometimes recording sessions just now popped up when the inspiration was there and maybe somebody wasn’t around or whatever. But if we played the stuff live, I was usually a part of that.
Pollard: I wrote “Watch Me Jumpstart” and I thought that, along with “Striped White Jets” and a few other songs, it kicked ass. So, I thought we should make it sound slightly fuller with a more sustained, deeper guitar sound. We decided to record it in my living room on a friend of Greg’s 8-track machine.
Demos: I played bass on “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Closer You Are,” “Motor Away,” “Striped White Jets,” “Blimps Go 90,” and “Alright.” I also played the lead at the end of “Alright.” I played guitar and Jimmy [Pollard’s brother] played bass. I can’t remember who played bass on “As We Go Up (We Go Down).” I did sing backing on that song.
Pollard: I had my brother pound on my back with his fists to create a tremolo sound for “Chicken Blows.” I could have just done it with my hand on my mouth or used a tremolo effect through an amp, but we thought it was much more amusing the way we did it.
Sprout: There was just so much going on that I can’t remember. I can’t remember who played drums. We had these rotating drummers and I even played drums on a lot of the stuff.
Mitchell: Somebody could be playing guitar on one song and turn around and jump on the drums. We all moved around with different instruments because everybody could play and was pretty good at it.
Pollard: For “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” I played the side of a metal trash can. I hit it with a stick and had Toby put some slapback on it. I remember I was embarrassed by the title. I thought it sounded backwoodsy. But the phrasing is great, and people really liked it. It’s about any seemingly trivial item that’s really important to you for personal reasons. It could be a hunting knife, a shirt, or a record. Whatever. That’s why in the video I’m hurling worthless objects from a child’s wagon. I guess I’m getting rid of childish preoccupations. But it’s fiction. I never really did.
Demos: I played violin on “Blimps Go 90,” although not very well. When we recorded Propeller, I brought a violin to the studio and Bob said, “What the hell, let’s give it a try.” It’s on “Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” and “Weedking.” It’s low in the mix with tons of effects. So we tried it again on “Blimps” but we didn’t have capabilities for mass effects on it. We also would use trash cans, amp drops, and anything else we could find to utilize as an instrument. I think it shows the unfettered creativity, independence, and disregard for industry norms that we had at that time and you can feel it on the record.
Pollard: “Game Of Pricks” was an old song. I have the original version. It’s slower, bouncier, and goofier. It’s almost become our signature song. Up there with “I Am A Scientist.”
Sprout: I can’t believe how fast I played “A Good Flying Bird.” It’s just two guitars. I was thinking it was a band, because we’d been playing it as a band and it was live. Then I went back and listened to it, and in fact it was just two guitars. But that’s what a lot of these songs are. They’re pretty simple. Throw a couple of instruments on it and then throw vocal on the top.
Pollard: I was out driving around and I thought of “Always Crush Me,” so I went to a friend’s house and recorded it on a boombox. I wanted to do something more interesting to it, so I took it to Toby’s. He put it on his 4-track and added some bizarre staccato effect to the guitar. Then we did a couple of different vocal effects to make it more intense. Especially in the last section with the higher register. Yeah, it is dark, but I don’t know what it means.
Sprout: “Alright,” the last one on there, it was a vocal song and Bob didn’t like it. I took it home and stripped all the vocals out. Then there were harmonies at the end that I left in. I thought that was pretty cool. It was almost thrown away.
One of the most incredible — and for some listeners, alienating — aspects of Guided By Voices is the shortness of many of the band’s best songs. Alien Lanes takes this to the extreme. Several tracks in the middle of the album — like “Cigarette Tricks,” “Pimple Zoo,” and “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant” — come and go in less than a minute. At times, the album feels like a suite in the style of The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Pollard: I just like short songs, especially back then. I have a short attention span. I liked Pink Flag and I like The Minutemen. Around Alien Lanes, I saw Mike Watt at a festival, and he told me to carry the torch. It’s funny because I like long songs, too. I like Tubular Bells and Thick As A Brick. I wanted Alien Lanes to sound like a late-night radio show without a DJ. I wanted Bee Thousand to sound like a bootleg of Beatles outtakes. For as confused as I was back then, I was actually pretty focused on the confusion I wanted.
Demos: Bob, Jimmy, and I made up on the spot “They’re Not Witches” and “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant.”
Pollard: Abbey Road is my favorite album of all time. Also, the silliness of a lot of the songs is similar to the Abbey Road suite.
Some of the most beloved songs on Alien Lanes — including the classic album-opener “A Salty Salute” as well as “Motor Away,” “King And Caroline” and “Auditorium” — were collaborations between Pollard and Sprout, in which Pollard wrote lyrics and melodies over Sprout’s instrumentals. This method would serve them well for years to come, in GBV as well as their side project, Airport 5.
Pollard: Toby wrote the music to “Motor Away.” I elaborated on the music and wrote the lyrics. I think I came up with the descending guitar thing on, “Oh, why don’t you just drive away.” We recorded on the 8-track at my house. Someone should have had the business acumen to use it in a car commercial.
Sweeney: If I had to play somebody one GBV song, “Motor Away” kind of sums it all up in a way. It’s such a feeling of being totally nowhere but being totally free, and it doesn’t matter, but it’s everything.
Sprout: We didn’t have to worry about getting studio time or worry about time as far as money. We could just go in on a Sunday afternoon, drinking some beers and throwing some songs down. I’d bring something in and we record that, or Bob would bring something.
Cosloy: In any other band on earth Tobin would’ve been the songwriting genius. In this instance, you had a pair of them.
Sprout: For “A Salty Salute,” I definitely remember doing that bass line and I was like, “I like it and I’m not sure what to do with it.” I couldn’t really come up with any vocal over it. Usually, I’d record three tracks and then bounce them down to the fourth. Then that would give you three more tracks, so I had it bounced down, and I think I added another guitar and on that left two tracks open. I played it for Bob and Bob went and got lyrics, like he usually did. He threw that vocal over the top and it was done.
Pollard: The lyric comes from a story my friend Gibby told me about the Northridge American Legion post taking a fishing trip up to Lake Erie. During a storm on the lake, one of them fell overboard. So they fished him out and got him under a makeshift canvas roof. As he was warming up with a cup of coffee, the roof collapsed on him and he was drenched again with the accumulated rain on the canvas. So it’s funny but also sad, like the song. That’s why I said, “The new drunk drivers have hoisted the flag / To carry us to the lake / The club is open.” The club being the American Legion. Not that I condone drinking and driving but these guys were mostly alcoholics and just trying to heal from the time they spent serving their country, and a lot of them had multiple DUI offenses. One guy had 14, I shit you not. To their defense, not that there really is one, it wasn’t as frowned upon back then as greatly as it is now.
Sprout: It just all of a sudden blew up. I mean, it was just there. It was pretty amazing. I don’t think he did more than one take.
Pollard: It was great to work with him. He was a master on the 4-track and the limited resources he had in his basement. His songwriting was a nice compliment to mine and sometimes we worked out things together.
While Sprout had a knack for beautiful melodies that sometimes veered into balladry, Pollard instinctually would add noise to any song that sounded too pretty. Like the Big Star-esque “Ex-Supermodel,” a brief but gorgeous jangler defaced with a loud, obnoxious snoring sound.
Pollard: We just lowered a mic from the ceiling onto the mouth of one my friends who was asleep and snoring. We used it as the rhythm track.
Sprout: Maybe it’s because he grew up in Northridge, which was a rougher area than I grew up in. Maybe he was afraid to show softness to his friends. I don’t know. I don’t want to speculate on what he was doing, but I think maybe he didn’t want to get too creamy because Guided By Voices was a rock band. We wanted to keep it a little crude.
After Pollard and his buddies made music for years without any discernible interest from the outside world, Alien Lanes proved to be a hot commodity. Along with intense interest from Matador, the band was also being courted by major labels, like Warner Bros.
Sprout: I mean, it was exciting. We were being flown out to L.A.
Lombardi: I think that was a little bit disheartening to us, because we felt like this was something that was really something perfect for Matador, and that it was kind of a reach for somebody like Warner Bros.
Mitchell: I didn’t really pay that much attention to all that stuff.
Pollard: I met with, I think, the vice president of Warner Bros., and he played me “I Am A Scientist” from Bee Thousand, and said to me, “I’m hip to this lo-fi stuff but is this how this is supposed to sound?” I said yeah, and then he asked me if I would re-record Alien Lanes. I told him no, that it was finished, but we would be willing to go into a studio for the next one.
Cosloy: We’re talking about a rather fucked up era where a lot of terrible bands got signed for way too much money. Conversely, a handful of good bands actually made a living, so it wasn’t all bad.
Sprout: There were this idea of, “We’re going to give you a band” to Bob, where they were making the band into something that they visualized instead of what the band visualized. They were going to take Bob and take his songs and then create whatever they wanted from that.
Pollard: That was the deciding moment for me to go with Matador, even though I kind of knew we were going to anyway.
Alien Lanes was mastered by Bob Ludwig, one of the industry’s most famous mastering engineers, who has worked on scores of classic albums by Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Coldplay, and many, many others.
Sprout: Somebody at Matador called and said, “Look, we’re going to have your album mastered tomorrow. Do you want to talk to Bob Ludwig about it?” And I said, “Sure, why not?” So he called or I called him, and I go, “So have you ever done a master from a cassette?” And he said, “Yeah.” Because he did Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. So it was like, “Oh geez, all right. I guess you can handle it.”
Pollard: With all due respect, I don’t know what the mastering did for it. I guess he evened out the low and high frequencies, whatever that means.
Upon its release, Alien Lanes instantly generated some of the most lavish attention the band would ever receive from the press, including a rapturous and lengthy four-star review in Rolling Stone by Matt Diehl.
Diehl: My review of Alien Lanes in Rolling Stone was and remains the longest ever in the publication’s history. It’s funny – there was less real estate back then for reviews due to the Internet’s nascent existence, but it seemed like more stuff was covered, and from a wider cultural swath.
I wrote it so long really because of the simultaneous release of the Box box set; it was sort of unparalleled to have a “new” band that was blowing people’s minds, but then have this window into their evolution and development in such a granular way. That seemed kind of unprecedented, and interesting to think about. I also thought the music that inspired GBV was important in, say, the way The Stooges were in terms of influencing the Sex Pistols. I both enjoyed and wanted to turn people on to those influences by rigorously unpacking them, and in doing so, I had to explain their significance as well to an extent. It was literally a rock critic Where’s Waldo situation of cultural and musical influences, and I felt my cred rested on my ability to explicate that.
Pollard: I was blown away by the acceptance of the press at the time from Vampire On Titus to Alien Lanes. We really fearlessly stepped up to the plate in a big way and delivered, and they knew it. We were being called all kinds of high praise shit. Indie rock darlings. Kings of Lo-Fi. Pioneers of Lo-Fi. When we were finally signed to Scat and then Matador, we became much, much better. Much more confident. We didn’t choke.
Sprout: We were late in the age for getting started. Maybe they thought we looked too old. I look back and that’s just crazy. We didn’t look old at all.
Demos: During our first MTV interview I joked that the only reason I’m in the band is because I bring the average age down by 10 years.
Turiel: There was that trepidation of, “Okay, Bee Thousand is amazing. How do you follow that up?” Then you’re five songs into the album, and you’ve already heard “Watch Me Jumpstart,” and “As We Go Up, We Go Down,” and “A Salty Salute,” and the big hits are not even going to be showing up for a little while longer. And immediately I knew this album was amazing. I knew that that was it. I’m in forever here. This is just unbelievable how good it is.
Lombardi: I think there was an appreciation for a certain level of almost outsider art. Finding some odd record at a record store that doesn’t look familiar, and taking it home, you don’t recognize the band name or the artwork, or maybe it doesn’t even have any artwork, and putting it on your turntable and hearing something that blows your mind.
Alien Lanes made enough of a splash for the band to get invited on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show for their first national TV appearance.
Turiel: I think Jon Stewart was four or five days before the album came out.
Sprout: I remember being in the green room and Jon Stewart came down. I thought that was pretty cool move. He seemed like a really nice guy. It was just sort of surreal because when you watch this stuff on TV, it looks different. You know, when you’re onstage you see the cameras and stuff. And the audience is really small. And then you get the idea that this is being broadcast all over the world. I remember thinking I was going to be really nervous, but I wasn’t when I got up there.
Pollard: I was so horrified I couldn’t open my eyes. I knew how many people were watching. But when I watched it, I thought it went pretty well.
Mitchell: You can’t smoke cigarettes on the show. But the first thing I did was fucking light up a cigarette. That’s just the way I did it, man. Like, I can’t hardly play without smoking.
Turiel: Up until that point, they were such a mystery to me. Because their albums had all these names that were associated with contributing to the album. And I was like, “How many people are in this band?” I still have the VHS cassette. It starts to wobble a little bit because I’ve watched it so many times.
The success of GBV’s mid-’90s albums led to touring opportunities far beyond Dayton. Their most high-profile road gig was Lollapalooza in 1994.
Sprout: Lollapalooza was a blast. We were on one of the side stages, but we knew one of the Deal sisters [from The Breeders], so we could get backstage on the big stage and hang out with them.
Farley: I’m pretty sure we were drunk the entire Lollapalooza tour.
Pollard: We came on at 1 in the afternoon, so we had to start getting drunk in the morning.
Mitchell: Oh man, we were the bad boys.
Farley: I think a lot of that was part of the “everything’s brand new and this is exciting” kind of thing. “It’s a celebration, bitches!” every night.
Demos: We were late to one of the shows because we had to find a liquor store and were warned not to be late again or we would be kicked off the tour. I’m pretty sure we were late again but never kicked off the tour.
Pollard: We were told beforehand that we get two warnings for festival infractions, and on the third, you’re out! We received our third warning after our second show. But the crew loved us and before the next show they told us, “Lecture’s later — just get onstage and play.” We overslept that morning and were gonna be late, so we had to stop at a liquor store for whiskey to ensure the appropriate level of inebriation. We got there five minutes before we were scheduled to come on, and as the curtain was rising, I downed about a third of my bottle of Jack, and I attained the appropriate level of inebriation.
Demos: We were also reprimanded because Mitch’s van had a gas leak and was considered to be a safety hazard.
Mitchell: It was all covered with graffiti and duct tape. It’s the van in the “Motor Away” video. We pulled in next to these million dollar tour buses and our van comes in leaking gas and the guys were all, “Get that van out of here! You’re going to blow up the whole fucking place!” They made us park the van way out in the field.
Demos: Also Mitch and I borrowed a golf cart that security would use and we drove all over the festival grounds hammered and would pull up to people and ask them if they seen a Titleist.
Mitchell: We were doing scenes from Caddyshack.
Demos: We thought it was funny. The festival people did not.
There was also an inevitable confrontation with one of the tour’s biggest stars: Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins.
Sprout: He had a basketball net that he took with him on tour and I threw it on top of the bus. I guess he was a big player. Bob and Jim were both big basketball players in school so they played him and I think it got a little bit rough at a point. Billy grabbed his net and tore off.
After the release of Alien Lanes, Guided By Voices continued their drunken adventures on the road.
Pollard: I like being on the road with a band. Who wouldn’t? I guess The Beatles or Andy Partridge? I’m old now so I don’t stay out long at all.
Mitchell: The records, it was more of a controlled environment, where it was just all about the songs. But when the live gigs happened, you’ve got all the stimulus from the people and drinking and everything else and it takes it to another level.
Turiel: I saw them on that tour a couple of times. It was the first time I ever met Bob at a show. I met him at a pre-show thing when the For All Good Kids record came out, that bootleg, and they were doing this kind of purposely half-assed in-store thing. They were just in the back room drinking beers, and they would come out into the record store every once in a while, and if you saw them you would get them to sign the record.
Demos: Touring at that time was amazing. The excitement and enthusiasm was off the charts. We were young and not phased by the hardships of the road. We were living the dream. It was an amazing time and I feel fortunate that I was able to be a part of it.
Farley: It was super low budget.
Mitchell: There’s so much shit I don’t remember doing. I don’t remember things. We weren’t posers, we were real. We would drink your ass under the table in a heartbeat.
Sprout: We traveled in Mitch’s utility van. We’d leave Dayton real early in the morning and drive all the way to Philadelphia. I think that’s 10, 11 hours. A lot of time we wouldn’t eat and we’d just sleep on top of the equipment. And then we’d get to Philadelphia and they’d have a party ready for us. So we’d be drinking for 11 hours on the way there. Then we’d be drinking at these parties, and then we go do the show and drink some more. It was just insane. I don’t know how we did it. We’d end up sleeping either in the van or sometimes there was a couch in the back of the club.
Mitchell: We were playing a gig somewhere, I think it was Tennessee, and we didn’t have any place to stay. I was walking down an alley and saw a couch laying there and I slept on the couch.
Sprout: It was pretty rough. But you love doing it. I didn’t feel like I was in danger or anything. It was something you just did because that’s the way it was.
But this version of Guided By Voices wasn’t destined to hold together for long. Demos had already left before Alien Lanes came out. Sprout eventually left after 1996’s Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. The rest of the so-called “classic” lineup would be gone by the following year. But Pollard would keep the band going with new lineups and hundreds of new songs for years to come.
Sprout: When we got a record deal for Vampire On Titus, I thought, “That’s it! We’re there! This is all I want! Put this album out and I’ve done it.” Then it just kept snowballing and kept going on and on and on. I mean, you just kind of ride this wave as long as it goes. I would have stayed on it, except my son was born when I was on tour in Vancouver. Then my daughter came along around the time of [Sprout’s 1997 solo album] Moonflower Plastic and I just couldn’t be away from home anymore. I wanted to see my kids grow up and I didn’t want to put the band off where they couldn’t do anything. So I left.
Fans still argue about which GBV album is best. But Alien Lanes inarguably belongs in the top tier of the band’s releases, as well as ’90s indie rock.
Sweeney: When I hear it, it still sounds fucking incredible to me.
Demos: It’s a hell of a record.
Sprout: I think Propeller launched us. Bee Thousand got us a little more recognized. Then this one was the followup. It had to be at least as good and I think it is. Maybe even better.
Diehl: People don’t really cite it enough, but damn, that was an influential record. There would be no Strokes without GBV as a forebear, for example. And I think it holds up just as pretty much anything Robert Pollard is involved with does. Even the most scattered GBV release has astonishing songs on it. Alien Lanes wasn’t scattered though, which makes it defining. The hooks, virtuosity, and sheer spontaneity captured pretty much remain unparalleled.
Farley: Even when I was in the band later, I’ve always been kind of a super fan. So I look at Alien Lanes from a different perspective, like I wasn’t looking at it as a listener. Like, trying to remember all the chords to “Evil Speakers.” It never goes back to the same part twice. Everyone thinks that these are super simple one-minute pop songs. But Bob puts a lot of thought into them. A lot of them are the trickiest songs, especially on Alien Lanes. Because they don’t follow really a formula and there’s like a lot of unpredictability to them.
Cosloy: The songs are what makes it great. Certainly it’s crammed with many of the all-time GBV faves: “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Game Of Pricks,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Motor Away,” “Closer You Are,” “King & Caroline. All killer, no filler. If I had to rank the albums, I’d probably put this a close second to Bee Thousand with Under The Bushes, Under The Stars coming in third. But that’s not meant as a diss to the earlier stuff, nor am I in the camp of those who aren’t partial to the post-Matador material, I just wish I had an extra brain to absorb all of it.
Sprout: I think from that point, from Alien Lanes on, things changed quite a bit. I look at that picture on the back and it’s pre-New York City. It’s like the innocence was gone after that.
Mitchell: That is the real Guided by Voices. Like it or not, that’s what it is. We were all in it together, man. We did it. We had a certain chemistry together. We’ve known each other for a long time, you know what I mean?
Pollard: I love Alien Lanes, but there were people saying, “OK, enough lo-fi. Now let’s see what you can do in a big studio.” And then when we started making records with better production there were people saying, “No man, we wanna hear those noisy, short lo-fi songs.” Alien Lanes and the people associated with it gave me the confidence and drive to continue. To keep writing and recording songs and making records. Some people think too many. But that’s not gonna stop me!
Get the Alien Lanes reissue here via Matador Records.